When people plan to visit the Grand Canyon, what they're usually aiming for is the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The entire canyon extends well beyond the park borders, but the park's South Rim is the easiest to access and is open year-round. It's well-served with lodging, camping, dining, and shopping, plus a wide variety of things to do. It therefore has a proportionately higher number of tourists, some five million of them annually, and at the height of tourist season, it's a challenge to find any solitude in which to appreciate the wonder before you.
The North Rim is a vastly different experience. Remote and much more rugged, this portion of Grand Canyon National Park is enjoyed by perhaps a tenth the number of visitors. Rising 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, the North is significantly cooler and greener, with more volatile weather. This is an entirely different ecosystem, in fact, characterized by forests, meadows, and thriving populations of mule deer, elk, black bears, and porcupines.
Whether you're heading north or south, plan ahead. Park admission is good for seven days and covers both rims, although a week isn't nearly enough time to experience it all. Better to confine yourself to one side, and visit the other on your next trip.
South Rim Highlights
The South Rim is the only way to go if you're short on time. It's possible to arrive in the morning, see the highlights, and still get a good night's sleep so you can be back on the road the next day.
Of course, you owe it to yourself to spend as much time as possible because there's a wealth of things to see and do. A free shuttle transports wide-eyed vacationers to various scenic viewpoints along the rim, where you can hop off and snap a few photos. Most of the Park's historic buildings are here, housing visitor centers, shops, eateries, and museums of history, archaeology, and geology. The Kolb Studio and The Tusayan Museum and Ruins are a must for history buffs.
Hikers will find a plethora of trails to explore. You can hike down to the canyon floor, but don't expect to make it to the top again by nightfall. This is a major undertaking, requiring at least two days. If you plan well ahead, you can take a mule ride down to the bottom (888-297-2757 or 303-297-2757), stay overnight at Phantom Ranch, and then ride the mule back up.
Options for in-park lodging are abundant, but again, plan ahead and make reservations well in advance if your heart is set on it. Dining options are plenty, but lines can be a problem.
North Rim Highlights
The North Rim is accessible from mid-May to mid-October. Heavy snow forces the northern portion of the park to shut down every winter. So if you want to visit the North Rim, you must plan in advance because you only have a five-month window of opportunity.
Things on the North Rim are more relaxed. You won't find a free shuttle, but then again, you won't find a road either. There are, however, a number of hiking trails ranging from a half-mile jaunt to the canyon edge, to 10-mile pathways that take a day to traverse. The North Kaibab Trail is the only maintained trail down into the canyon from the North Rim. If you want to hike it, plan for at least three days; round-trip is 28 miles. Although mule rides are offered (435-679-8665), none descends to the canyon floor.
In keeping with the relaxed vibe, ranger-led programs and evening campfire talks are popular. The schedule of topics is posted in the visitor center, but you can also download the annual North Rim Seasonal Guide before you go. Leave yourself time for free-form entertainment. Watching the sun set is a favored pastime here, along with comparing trail accomplishments.
As for lodging, you can opt for a charming cabin, a functional, motel-style room, or a modern campground. Dining options are limited, but most budgets and tastes are accommodated. The chuck wagon cookout is a blast, especially with kids in tow.
Accessing the North Rim
Getting to the North Rim is the greatest challenge. There are only two ways. You can drive or take the Trans Canyon Shuttle (once a day in both directions, 928-638-2820) around the eastern edge of the canyon – about 212 miles from the South Rim visitor center to the North.
Or, if you've got the time and the gusto, you can hike rim to rim. It's 21 miles, but bear in mind that along the way you must cross a narrow foot bridge 70 feet above the Colorado River, and that the final ascent to the North Rim is one mile straight up. Most people plan a multi-day trip for this.
A Few Words About Grand Canyon West
Grand Canyon West is owned and operated by the Hualapai Indian Reservation and is not affiliated with the National Park. From the South Rim Visitor Center, the trip is approximately 240 miles, with the last 10 miles or so over a dirt road – plan at least 5 hours.
There's an admission fee to enter Grand Canyon West, which ranges from about $30-50 plus fees and taxes depending on which package you choose. If you want to experience the infamous Skywalk, there's an additional fee. Numerous other add-ons are available, from horseback rides to helicopter outings over the canyon to whitewater rafting. Prices for these range from about $35-200 or more.
If you're in Las Vegas and plan to return to the city, this attraction is much closer than driving all the way to the South Rim entrance of Grand Canyon National Park. Otherwise, most travelers find Grand Canyon West somewhat disappointing, particularly because it's exponentially more expensive and cameras are not permitted on the Skywalk (although you can purchase photos). True, your money goes to support a traditionally poor population, but many visitors report feeling put off by all the additional fees and restrictions.